Kenneth Waltzer
Kenneth Waltzer

Forced Out

I watched a powerful film yesterday, “Forced Out,” available on youtube, co-written by David Hirsh and Andrea Frankenthaler about the forceful exclusion of veteran Jewish members from the British Labour Party.  People with long experience campaigning and working for Labour, who viewed the party as a vessel for fighting for equality and social justice, have now come to see the party as a betraying, antidemocratic institution. They have been marginalized, thrown out, designated as outsiders, and some have been accused of allegiance to a foreign power.  Many have been targeted for abuse, personally demonized, and tagged with malicious intent to undermine the party.

The film assesses antisemitism in the Labour Party not as a problem of individuals but as an institutional reality. The leadership of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is strongly and unyieldingly committed to an anti-capitalist political antisemitism which now suffuses the institution so thoroughly that the party offers safe space for numerous anti-Jewish actors and actions.  When charges are offered about antisemitism in the party, the leadership temporarily retreats, perhaps briefly punishes, bowing to the public commons by offering a special study, but then moves on to reinstate and re-embrace the culprits.  The dominant concern is not that long-time Jewish members are treated badly or that the party needs serious self-examination and reform.  The dominant themes instead are that Jews are privileged, Jews are complainers, Jews are tied to Zionist capitalists, and Jews are up to nefarious ends in speaking out about anti-Jewish currents. Many who appear in the film have suffered serious personal consequences. They were themselves leaders and activists in the localities and in parliament but are now outcasts. The Party has fallen under the throes of a sharp hard left ideology and has room only for good Jews who toe the line and others who notarize the line as fair and good.

I feel a deep sense of déjà vu watching this lament from Jews who have recently become politically homeless for the plight of these Britiah brethren mirrors the situation historically for so many Jewish actors in so many places at so many in the modern era .  Despite the promises of emancipation, that Jewish members could be or do all that others could be and do, the actual history of Jews, especially on the left, has included periods of dispossession and displacement. Every so often, we tend to wind up getting our noses rubbed in it, our illusions wiped away, helping us realize that others see us not like they see all other members – for whom particularistic identities are no disqualification for respect and opportunity – but as distinctive and different and basically suspect.

Despite the left expectation that Jews would at some time melt away, history has conspired to make Jews visible and different.  Our values and our history push us toward universal concern for human rights and decent communities. So many British Jews, offspring of immigrants and refugees, and of workers, were active in the Labour Party. Our history also presses us to reflect on why and how the world acts toward us as it does, periodically making us stand accused. The past 100 years was a poor environment in which to expect a great melting – migration, discrimination, war, Holocaust, restoration of a Jewish homeland, the Israel-Palestine conflict, more migration and discrimination, updated efforts to erase a Jewish homeland.  At the same time, the global left has moved in the wake of the collapse of socialism toward a new anti-racist form of discrimination and a new bipolar campist anti-imperialism, which identifies opponents of the capitalist west as part of the progressive forces and embraces Third World liberation and resistance as the supposed motor force of progress.  The same left also has returned to recycling classic stories about the moral character of the Jew and now of the Jewish state to explain away the dynamic complexity of the contemporary world.

A central characteristic of antisemitism has always been to construct the Jew as the obstacle to a better world.  At its core, antisemitism everywhere rests on a belief that the world would be improved if there were no Jews or if Jews and Jewish influence were circumscribed.  Jews are the devil’s people, a brood of swine and vipers, a people barred from grace, the untrue Israel now superseded by a newer and truer Israel.  Or Jews are an economic threat and a danger to public well-being, a selfish and conniving people, which manipulates currencies, spreads plagues, poisons wells, and – in insult to God’s loving mercy — seeks a pound of flesh.  Or Jews are a racial enemy and a danger, a people that masquerade behind a mask of acculturation, taking on the accents and look and language of host nations, but always remaining alien.  Or Jews are part of an international conspiracy that seeks to control and dominate the world.  Today, it is Israel that is seen as extraordinarily evil, a threat to world order, a violator of human rights, a state unlike any other, and Jews are thought of as supporters and sponsors of the evil Jewish state.  If Jewish influence was blunted, if the new state could be put on the road to elimination, the world or at least the Middle East would be improved.  Justice and human rights would triumph.

How painful to be people who care deeply about human rights and equality and to be configured in the mind of contemporary party activists as enemies of human rights and equality.  How painful to set down roots in the Labour Party and then to be forced out for expecting and demanding proper treatment. How painful to be tagged as imperialists and colonialists because they support a country founded at least in part in anti-colonial struggle against British imperialism and under sanction of and recognition by the United Nations.  How painful to be the target of activist smears calling out against the thrust of the evidence that the charge of antisemitism in the Party amounts to a bad faith attack on the community of the good. How painful to acknowledge that the intersection of British Jewish history and Labour Party history seems to be reaching an end.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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